John Carter – A Hero searching for an audience

Ah, what complicated and troubled times we live in. It isn’t even possible to make a straight forward adventure film without having to figure out who it is targeted at, or to even name the movie after the famous book on which it is based, for fear that it will alienate some demographic or the other.

I refer of course, to that troubled Hollywood release from this weekend called (eventually) John Carter.

The funny thing is, John Carter – or A Princess of Mars, as it surely would have been called had it been released in the days before studios were taken over by MBAs – was produced as an animation movie and came very close to being released back in the 30’s. However, after a test screening, it was felt that the story of an American cavalryman having adventures on Mars would not sell with audiences in the American heartland…ok, I stand corrected; it sounds like the marketing and demographics problem existed back then as well.

In anticipation of the release of this film, I had started reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ celebrated novel (first published in serialized form in 1912) a few months ago…yes, it is in its centenary year and like most of Burroughs’ books, it has passed out of copyright and is available as a free download through Project Gutenberg. This is the first of Burroughs’ Barsoon series (the name the natives of Mars have given to their planet). The book is similar in tone and theme to his Tarzan novels – white man (with first name ‘John’) transplanted to dangerous alien land, turns out to be superior both physically and intellectually to the natives, becomes their friend and leader…and of course, gets the girl. In fact, both A Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes were written around the same time, so it looks like Mr. Burroughs understood the concepts of ‘copy – paste’ well before the computer era.

The entire genre of science fantasy/ planetary romance was kick-started when astronomer Percival Lowell discovered ‘canals’ on the surface of Mars in the late 19th century. It was this discovery that led to H.G. Wells writing The War of the Worlds in 1898 and Edwin L. Arnold writing Gullivar of Mars in 1905. In fact, it is most likely Lieutenant Gullivar from this story who inspired E.R. Burroughs to come up with the character of John Carter.

Let’s get back to the troubled movie. It all started exactly a year ago, when the motion capture film Mars Needs Moms opened to disastrous critical and commercial results. (By the way, the film was directed by Simon Wells, the great grandson of H.G. Wells, whose science fiction novels were all the rage by the time Mr. Burroughs started writing A Princess of Mars). Mars Needs Moms was on its way to becoming one of the biggest box office bombs in Hollywood history last March and so the producers of came to inexplicable conclusion that any film with the word Mars in its title was not going to succeed at the box office, so the title was shortened from John Carter of Mars to John Carter. Going by this logic, James Cameron’s big budget release in 1997 would have been called Jack Dawson instead of Titanic given that Raise the Titanic was a big budget bomb back in 1980. By this time, the marketing guys had already decided not to name the film A Princess of Mars because they felt that any movie with the words Princess in the title would be mistaken for a Barbie movie and therefore not be watched by the male demographic. Apparently the other reason for dropping Mars from the title was because they believed that the female demographic would not watch a movie with a planet’s name in the title. As I said, what complicated and troubled times we live in.

Hey guys, how about focusing a bit more on building awareness with some good old fashioned PR (it is the 100th anniversary of its publication after all and it does come from the same author who wrote Tarzan) and making a trailer that actually shows that the movie is an Indiana Jones-type fun adventure for audiences of all ages and sexes…a bit of action, a bit of romance, a bit of humor? Instead, it looked like the trailers were made to be as unexciting as possible, giving audiences no idea of the storyline or context (remember, the Disney management didn’t want anyone to know that this story takes place on Mars!). In fact, a few weeks ago, an online fan actually created an amateur trailer that many experts agree does a much better job of selling the movie than the official trailers do.

Getting back to the actual movie, which I watched last night, it isn’t all that bad. One should keep in mind that we are not talking high art here. Burroughs and his contemporaries were the earliest exponents of pulp fiction and the film delivers on that count. Unfortunately, the original novel has inspired so many writers and film makers over the past 100 years, that almost every character and scene feels familiar and jaded, because we have already seen it in countless other movies. Yes, the acting is a bit wooden, but those considerations never stopped me from enjoying Jason and the Argonauts or the Sinbad movies of the ‘70s. What’s not to like – there’s a good looking athletic hero, a smart and feisty heroine, a brave warrior and his daughter who stand by the hero, a cute animal, a villain and his evil advisor and many fight scenes. My only complaint was that the entire film seemed a bit hurried and didn’t allow the viewer to actually appreciate the alien world that has been so painstakingly created on a thousand computers. We all know this is the era of short takes and quick cuts (thank you, Michael Bay for destroying films as an art form…although I suppose your unique visual style does qualify you for the title of ‘auteur’), but seriously, is it asking too much for the camera to just stand still and focus on a scene or a structure for more than 5 seconds?

The one bit of positive buzz that is coming out of the movie relates to John Carter’s pet Calot. A Calot is a creature from the Mars novels that can only be described as a sort of ugly, pony-sized creature with a squat body, a frog-like face and 10 legs that can run incredibly fast across the Martian desert. In the books, John Carter gains the affection of a Calot named Woola, which saves him in the nick of time on several occasions. For the movie, director Andrew Stanton decided to give Woola the personality of a goofy, friendly bulldog. It words very well and every time the creature comes on screen, I couldn’t help but smile. I think that irrespective of the success of the movie, they are going to be selling a lot of stuffed cuddly Woola toys. Who knows, someone may even think of doing an animated TV series spin-off featuring Woola.

The film reportedly cost upwards of $ 250 million to produce and another $ 100 million to market (mostly spent on those useless trailers) and based on the Friday US box office, it is likely to end its entire domestic run with only about $ 70 million (as predicted by Gitesh Pandya of Box Office Guru in his tweet earlier this morning). But the movie has opened well in some overseas markets, so the global box office may at least help to recover the basic production cost. Although the movie ends with the usual set-up for a sequel (and there were a total of 10 Barsoom novels published by Burroughs that they can potentially adapt from), I don’t think that sequel is ever going to happen. For director Andrew Stanton, who won Oscars for Finding Nemo and Wall-E, this is an inauspicious start as a live-action film director. Clearly not easy to make the jump from directing pixels to directing real actors…Brad Bird was able to do it successfully, jumping from The Incredibles and  Ratatouille to Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol last year, but perhaps this is not Stanton’s cup of tea.

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2 thoughts on “John Carter – A Hero searching for an audience

    1. I haven’t written a review of the movie so much as a discussion of its origins and a point of view about how muddled its so-called marketing has been. If movies like Transformers can make a billion dollars at the global box office, then it’s a pity that films like this should struggle to find an audience.

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